YANGON, Myanmar—Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party attained a historic majority in Burma’s Parliament on Friday, making it possible for them to form the Southeast Asian country’s first truly civilian government in more than half a century.
While complete results from last Sunday’s elections will take more time to be tallied, the state election commission announced that Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party had won 37 additional seats — pushing it over the threshold of 329 seats needed for a majority in the two-house Parliament.
The party with a combined parliamentary majority is able to select the next president, who can then name a Cabinet and form a new government. The 329 figure represents a majority in the 664-member Parliament because voting was not held in seven constituencies due to unrest.
The ruling military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party has won just 40 seats so far.
The handover should take place after the new Parliament meets early next year and votes on a new president, along with two vice presidents.
The NLD will face a variety of challenges, not least of which is the huge tide of pent-up expectations evidenced by the vote. Its lack of experience in public administration is another big question mark.
But the victory is a sweet second chance for the party, which also won a landslide victory in the first election it contested, in 1990, only to see the results annulled by the military, and many of its leading members harassed and jailed.
Suu Kyi herself was put under house arrest prior to the 1990 election, and spent 15 of the next 22 years mostly confined to her lakeside villa in Yangon. She was under house arrest when she won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, and was freed most recently exactly five years ago.
Few expect the army to throw up that kind of roadblock again. It is committed to the economic opportunities of a newly globalized country that encourages foreign trade and investment, and has written provisions into the constitution that guarantee it a leading role in running the country. The military automatically receives 25 percent of the seats in each house of Parliament.
Another major issue for the NLD will be how to deal with the country’s fractious ethnic minorities, who for decades have been conducting on-again, off-again insurgencies seeking greater autonomy. In opposition, the NLD was in a loose alliance with such groups, but in power, it will have to make hard choices about how to balance national, military and minority interests.
Religious and racial tensions involving the country’s ethnic Rohingya minority and other Muslims — the source of deadly clashes that have left as many as 140,000 people internally displaced — are another challenge, complicated by the nationalist politicking of influential radical Buddhist monks. The issue has ramifications for Burma’s international relations as well, as the current government has been accused of inaction and even complicity in what some call genocide of the Rohingya.
The Union Election Board has been excruciatingly slow in announcing official results, though the victory has generally been a foregone conclusion, with both the NLD earlier claiming victory and the ruling party informally conceding.
The delay in announcing the NLD’s majority toned down exuberance among party supporters Friday, with the streets outside the NLD headquarters in Yangon looking as they do on normal working days. Supporters celebrated there right after the election on Sunday and Monday nights, cheering and dancing as noisy campaign songs blared over loudspeakers.
Party executives have been sorting out transition plans, making arrangements to meet soon with President Thein Sein, House Speaker Shwe Mann, and the real power behind the government, army commander Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.
Thein Sein served in the previous military regime, and was named president after the USDP won a 2010 election that was boycotted by the NLD, which considered it unfair. Thein Sein’s government met some of the NLD’s demands for changes in the election laws, and the opposition party agreed to run in by-elections in 2012, taking 43 of the 44 seats it contested.